Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

Media: Disco Television |1979-5-10

Brothers Johnson

Since its inception thirty years ago, commercial television has highlighted dance music; yet, technically, the medium’s audio never matched its visual impact. Rock ‘n’ Roll giants were shrunk by television’s small sound system. Even when Ed Sullivan would spotlight a group, the music’s energy seemingly was stuck within the confines of the small screen.

Local disc jockeys Alan Freed, Jocko and Clay Cole introduced the new music, while on the west coast Johnny Hand Jive Otis, a white passing for a black, spewed out raw urban blues in the late 1950s to an appreciative audience but the industry still considered modern dance programs as specialty acts geared to the youth and black markets and not worth the financial effort involved to make them compatible with television.

When disco exploded, from fad to cultural phenomenon in the mid-sixties, its voyeuristic qualities, coupled with big beat music that appealed to listeners in spite of television’s poor sound system, made disco television commercially viable.

American Bandstand reflects this change in attitude among broadcasters. Bandstand is the only dance program that has spanned the history of rock ‘n’ roll through all of its varied categories, but is also one of the few programs from the 1950s still on the air. Snugly ensconced in its Saturday afternoon time slot, Dick Clark’s longevity has to be attributed to his ability to follow trends, and television’s Mr. Clean has succeeded; Bandstand is one of the hottest income generating dance programs on the air. Clark, who has literally seen music stars born and die, recognized the importance of disco in the mid 1970s and quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

WOR TV’s Soap Factory.
WOR TV’s Soap Factory.

This isn’t the first trend Bandstand has given vent to, from first generation I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent, 1950s simplicity to the Let’s Dance! sophistication of the 1970s and everything in between: Philly soul, Motown, Memphis black rock, sock-hop pop, do-wah, strollin’, acid rock, mellow California jams, Latin rhythms and Reggae have all passed through Bandstand’s speakers like new model cars in a Detroit showroom. Only recently has Clark paid any attention to his much maligned record review segment which constantly reflected the taste of a new generation of dancers [whether or not it had a good beat or if one could dance to it being the criteria necessary to score high]; the grandfather of dance stuck to his favorite music, a bland mix of Brill Building assembly line lyrics and young Italian crooners from Philadelphia well into the sixties.

Still, Bandstand’s sets are aesthetically the best on the tube and the camera work has caught up with the dancers, who, finally have captured the spirit of the boogie, instead of remaining immobile. Roving cameras now zoom in and out of the pack, occasionally throwing in a split-screen effect or slo-mo shot. Bandstand is a tradition and as such it will remain the same for years until confronted by something new and daring. The program that spurred Clark into the realm of disco was just that.

Soul Train, the creation of Chicago insurance salesman Don Cornelius, is the first nationally known black dance program on television. Its freshness, originality and high energy soon became synonymous with dance in the 1970s. Cornelius’ knack for picking solid tunes and the quality of Train’s dancers makes it the best dance show being aired. His dancers have a natural affinity with the camera, striving constantly for fifteen seconds of stardom as they spin, split and generally go to extremes in order to be isolated by the camera. It works, Soul Train dancers have gone on to commercial success independent of the show and the program has opened other fields for the flashy Hollywood youths: choreography, acting and fashion.

Train can make or break a disco record, something Bandstand Does not attempt to do, [possibly because of Clark’s fear of another payola scandal]. Train reflects, and has kept alive, the R&B influence in disco [heavy on the bass and percussion 4/4 timing]; if it wasn’t for Train, several of today’s hot groups would still be on the chitlin’ circuit instead of the Felt Forum.

Soul Train’s only problem, in New York anyway, is its time slot 11 am! TV programmers please take note: Train viewers are not those who watch cartoons! Still, the program’s dedicated audience [Fred Astaire never misses it for whatever it’s worth] continues to tune in and the show grows with each and every season.

Soul Alive, New York’s only disco program, is also prime viewing. What has always amazed this writer is that the Big Apple, disco capital of the world, has only one show originating from the city itself. Back when disco was still called soul music, the Cheetah packed them in hip to hip and in the early 1970s, the Headrest and Liquid Smoke crowd partied into the morning hours, long before Studio 54 was even thought of.

hot city dancers
Hot City Dancers

Alive’s format reflects the city’s inherent boogie power; highlighting dancers from local discotheques and playing up on east coast style as opposed to west coast flash. Gerry Bledsoe does a superb job hosting the program’s segmented format. Unfortunately, whatever class the program has is diluted by WPIX’s skimpy budget; whenever the camera pulls away from the dancers, who are fantastic, the audience catches a glimpse of the cardboard set.

Alive’s playlist stresses tunes that are a bit more heavily orchestrated than its west coast counterpart, although there are several tunes that are simultaneously hot across the country [believe it or not, different cities do listen to different music].

Soap Factory originates from a local nightclub in New Jersey that once was an actual soap factory. It’s a slick production that utilizes professional dancers and a fast-paced format. Factory’s problem is its guest performer accessibility, ranging from good disco stylists to mediocre bar bands,

Factory, however, is the only program that is actually taped in a disco, and it shows, at times I want to jump into the set and dance along with the TV revelers.

Hot City is another program that conveys an outrageous atmosphere for the would be disco dandy or disco queen. A syndicated hour-long program out of the City of Angels, Hot City has all the right ingredients to make it an outstanding program. The dancers are hot, the music is hot, and the set is hotter. But what steals City’s potential, is the host constantly running amok like a coke crazed disco guerrilla, destroying the flow of the program. He’s so hot, halfway through the program he burns out. That’s Hollywood!

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